The secret to successful urban schools is housing, argues Megan Sandal, principal investigator at Children's Health Watch.
For children to learn in school, they first have to show up. But the data on school absenteeism in many urban schools would make your hair curl. In San Francisco, it is estimated in some school districts that more than 50 percent
of students are chronically absent (defined as missing 10 percent or more of school in a given year).
The longevity of students at a given school is as valuable to them as simple attendance. But students often "churn" – leave and change schools or districts – each year, forcing teachers to re-teach material to new students. In Massachusetts, it's been estimated that over a third of students across 11 cities churn through a school in a given year, that is, who start and finish a grade in different places.
As a doctor, I was taught to differentiate between symptoms and diseases. I can treat a cough with syrups to cover it up, but I can only cure the cough if I treat the underlying pneumonia with an antibiotic. In many ways, poor attendance and churning are symptoms of the same underlying disease – a lack of affordable housing.
The gap in affordable housing in most urban environments is profound. In New York City, nearly 77,000 students
live in unstable housing, with an estimated 26,000 in homeless shelters and over 40,000 doubled up where two families live in a single home. A Utah research brief
showed that homeless students and children living in unstable housing were respectively twice and four times more likely to be chronically absent from school. That means kids who have unstable housing are significantly more likely to miss more than 10 percent of the school year.
By investing in more affordable housing, cities can stabilize urban schools and prevent churning and chronic absenteeism. Some interesting experiments are taking place to test the impact of housing on education. As Michael Mirra, executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA), puts it: "How do you spend a housing dollar to achieve two outcomes: first, help the kids we provide accommodation for to succeed in school and second, help the schools that serve our community?"
As reported in the Washington Post
, the THA partnered with a local elementary school where the churn rate was over 100 percent of students in a given year (given a classroom with 20 seats available, students would come and go until 56 children had been in the class¬ – almost three times the original class size).
They created a housing voucher program linked with social services, which targeted the chronically absent children and yielded significant results, reducing chronic absenteeism by 75 percent. But they are using scarce housing funding, and we should rapidly expand this promising pilot.
In linking housing investments with learning, cities can continue to apply healthy design principles to urban environments designed for health and well-being. As Jonathan Rose, founder of a multi-disciplinary real estate development firm, said in his recent Dunlop Lecture
: "There is a cognitive ecology to the design of urban environments that is essential." He outlined four strategies to combat toxic stress, including affordable housing, places for exercise, quiet spaces and healthy interactions. These prescriptions are easily applied to healthy learning environments as well.
Policymakers must understand the interconnectedness of urban spaces: housing matters for education, and what is good for citizens in housing is generally good for students in schools too. Without addressing the issue of housing, any educational reforms will be considerably less effective. Only when we understand and invest in these real solutions will urban schools improve and the potential of their students be realized.
This article is part of a series managed by The Economist Intelligence Unit for AkzoNobel.